Charlottesville: St. Paul’s, First Baptist, “Unite the Right” Rally, Friday & Saturday, August 11-12, 2017

I attended a “Mass Prayer Service” on Friday evening at St. Paul’s Church in Charlottesville, with my brother Stefan, his son Milo, and friend Nick, in preparation for the anticipated “Unite the Right” rallies the next morning at Emancipation Park, site of the Lee statue, and at McIntyre Park. I was delighted to greet, and hug, Catherine Taylor, pastor of our Blacksburg Presbyterian Church coming up the steps, with her husband, Robert Dean. She’d said, the previous Sunday, that they would be attending–and I was glad to see them both.

The service was a rousing, packed house summoning of God’s love and power. Love that cannot be overcome. Love that is stronger than any hatred! A group of “spiritual singers” up front inspired the audience to quietly sing along even before the service itself got underway, and when it did, an energetic African American cleric in black robes and long dreadlocks, brought that singing into full voice! He hopped in the air, he strode down the aisle, he gathered up the crowd in his energy and made us sing, oh did he ever! I could just about feel the presence of Nannie B. Hairston, her hands raised, exclaiming, “Praise the Lord!” After readings from Scripture, and a haunting, chanted recitation from the Q’uran, and more singing, Bury Me in the Struggle For Freedom, Dr. Cornel West came to the podium. In his straight up hair, and gold cufflinks, he was a minister and a showman and an agitator to a righteous cause, and could he rock the house! But he was really only the warm up for the Reverend Traci Blackmon of Justice and Witness Ministries. She was somehow connected to the events in Ferguson, and there burned in her the fierceness of of a soldier battle-scared in the struggle for justice. “Where have all the prophets gone?” she cried out. “Where have all the dreamers gone? For when dreamers rise up, giants fall. Take the story of David and Goliath. David, she taught us, leaning into the microphone, knew who he was, whose he was, and who his enemy was. Too many times, she said, we’d let a Goliath come back out onto the field, thinking all was well. Too many times! But now we got to destroy the camps, that are behind the Goliath. If we don’t, why here will come another Goliath. So now this time, this time, we got to cut the head off!”  And again, cut the head off! Cheers, clapping. Then more stirred-up singing: This little light of mine! and Wade in the water, and I will build this world from love. Then the offering plates passed down through the pews, filled to overflowing with money. Then a final simple blessing–followed by confusing announcements  about marchers outside, then instructions to leave by the side doors, don’t go alone, then: sit, wait, there was possibly some trouble down by the tennis courts. The girl next to me, showed me messaging on her phone: people with torches were marching our way. But my car was parked down by the tennis courts, and just couldn’t get stuck here, so I left the church anyway, encountering a group of police officers, who told me it was safe down that way, and so it was, though I heard chanting from somewhere on campus. 

I got myself out of bed and into town by 6 am the next morning for another service at First Baptist Church on West Main Street. Like Schaeffer Church in Christiansburg, a beautiful church, rich with history: red carpet, brass organ pipes up front, pews richly varnished and darkened with age. I supposed, or hoped, anyway, that this service would be more tranquil, and meditative, and settled comfortable into my cushioned seat with that hope. But oh, no! Soon it was a packed house again, and the cleric in dark robes and long dreds again up in front more energetic and commanding that even the night before, and in a more intimate setting, and so he would ring us up into wakefulness, he would bring us to our feet, he would have us clapping to raise the roof rafters, all in preparation once again for Dr. Cornel West, who took the microphone and the stage, and stalked from side to side, and shook his hands, and expounded upon our duty: if you sit too long, they’ll be a crease between your right and wrong!”  He wagged his finger in the air:  This is not a time for sunshine soldiers!  He crouched like a tiger, rose up like a bear, hissed like a snake: We must never allow anybody to normalize mendacity!” Then there was laying on of hands, a ceremony of bequeathing power and safety, as people came forward to rest their hands upon the shoulders of gathered clergy, and a closing prayer was spoken over them.

This service, too, ended with warnings to be cautious out on the streets, then advice to remain in the building temporarily–but I was so full of everything I could not possibly remain in the building, so walked out onto the street and down toward my car, almost in a daze, and came back on the other side to take a picture of First Baptist, and then returned to my car, and drove out to Free Union and my brother’s house, where I crashed for a hour. Then got up, showered, bought a fresh breakfast sandwich at a favorite place, “The Hunt Country Market,” and drove back into town. By then it was 10:30, and no doubt the city center was already geared for the rally at noon, so I parked a mile away, on Park Street, and walked in, glad to stretch my legs. At Courthouse Square, a guy was walking toward me with a khaki cap on, and holding some kind of serious military weapon. I supposed he was alt right, but his face didn’t look dangerous to me, and he paid me no mind and I went right on by.  I turned the corner onto Jefferson, and headed for Emancipation Park which I could see was barricaded, with police cars parked. At the first corner, there was a whole cluster of guys in black, all young, with more military-type weapons, and a girl with them, too. I came up unexpectedly, and surprised one of them, not intentionally, so stepped out into the street and went on, down past the houses all closed up, to the barricades, where a fellow with a blue vest stood in a front yard. His vest said, “ACLU Observer.” I noted the vest and said, “so what do you observe?” He shrugged, nodded at his pad of paper and said, “we watch the watchers.” He pointed to the cops, standing by their patrol vehicles. “We record their encounters, to see if there is anything out of the ordinary.” I was glad he was there, observing, and thanked him.

There was no going any further, so I backtracked, and saw ahead of me, standing with the cluster of black-clad guys on the corner, the first guy I had seen, with the khaki cap. I went up to him, and pointed to his shirt, which had a name on it “Rob Grodt,” with birth and death dates. I said, “who’s that?” He said, “a friend, killed in Iraq.” I asked him, “were you in Iraq?”  “No,” he said. “What organization is this?” I asked. “We’re the Redneck Revolt,” he said. This had to be alt right, I thought. “We’re left,” he said. I couldn’t get this through my head for a second. “Left? So you’re opposed to the people in the park?” I pointed down that way. “Absolutely,” he said. Then he said that they were there to protect people, and went on about this for a couple of minutes, very conversationally. He asked where I was from, and then I asked him. “North Carolina,” he said. “We’re all from North Carolina.” He asked what my name was, and then I asked what his was. “Dwayne,” he said, and we shook hands. “Thanks,” I said, and went down a block and then turned on Market Street, and toward Emancipation Park again.

By the time I got down to the Jefferson-Madison Regional Library, just across the street from the park, there was lots of intense activity. I settled near the library entrance, to take notes on what I’d seen so far, and talked to a young girl, sitting there prettily in the sun. She was from out of town, visiting a friend, and just taking in the scene. And it was a scene: down in the street, lines of marchers with flags and sticks, and helmets on, stood waiting to get into the park at the corner, where police had opened the barricade. I got myself to a better location, on the other side of the library steps, where a bunch of  other people stood. The marchers going up into the park were running the gauntlet, crowds of people on either side pressing in close. Pushing, shoving, scuffling, flags down, real fighting. Somebody when down. A big guy with long hair, an “enforcer,” no helmet on or any body armor, strode right in, pulling people off. Slowly marchers got into the park, greeted with raucous cheers, and flag waving. A colorful chaos of banners and flags, some Confederate, one or two Nazi, others emblazoned with strange symbols and glyphs. I got a few good pictures of this crowded melange in front of Robert E. Lee, impassive as ever upon his great horse, stained verdigris.

Having watched this awhile, I came down the steps, crossed the street, full of people, some holding signs, or flowers, and everybody, it seemed, including me, taking pictures, or video, and perhaps feeling foolish at it too, redundantly compiling this encyclopedic surveillance of our life and times, this historic and confusing moment. Near the barricades was another group of men with guns, but this group looking more “regulation,” maybe National Guard, dressed in fatigues and boots, with pistols strapped to their thighs, canteens on their belts, AK-47 looking weapons in hand. I asked one fellow, “what organization is this?” He hesitated. “I’m not permitted to say,” he said, “you’ll have to talk to our commanding officer.” He pointed. “There he is,” he said, “with the ear muffs.”  I walked over to this tall, rangy fellow, and asked him. He pushed one muff back–a radio, I supposed. He bent toward me with his lean face, a wad of tobacco showing behind his bottom lip. “We’re the  Constitutional Citizens League,” he said. “We’re mostly Vets.” He waved his hand. “We don’t belong to any of these groups. We’re just here to help law enforcement.” I wondered if this was a self-appointed commission, or whether his league had actually been invited to perform this duty, but didn’t ask. But maybe I could have, for really, he was perfectly forthcoming, and not the least hostile. He looked back toward the corner of the park, where more marchers with flags were entering, but having to fight their way in. Bottles of water were hurtling through the air. “You’d better stay away from there,” he said, “it looks like things are spooling up.”

At the far corner of the square, a dozen or more state police in safety vests stood chatting in the shade of big trees, while the alt right groups clustered behind them in the park and around the Lee statue. I walked down one more block, to just above the mall. People milled about. I saw my brother, at last, with his friends Nick and Avery, and we shared news. Moments later, I saw Doug Chancey, of Blacksburg, and I hailed him. He was looking for Erin McKelvey, his stepdaughter, that slight, fierce warrior for environmental and social justice, who had somehow gotten separated from him. Alt right groups, in clumps, were parading down the street, to jeers and taunts. Stragglers hurried to catch up to their bands. A black guy–could this be, an alt right black guy?–in military helmet and flak jacket, pushed people ahead of him into a run. Confrontational moments flared up. A marcher would stop, retort to a protester, a cluster of people would gather, then dissolve. A muscular guy in a helmet, his shins padded, and gripping a long baton in each hand, rushed over to our side of the street, then rushed away. The big “enforcer” walked calmly by. The street crowded up. A tall preacher dude with a amplified megaphone on his hip, a speaker held close to his lips with one hand and with his other hand lofting a huge sign printed with words like “homosexuals” and “abortion” on it in big letters, stood and calmly preached our litany of sins. “I’m not on this side, or that side, I’m on God’s side.” People clustered around him and argued, and he argued back, but in measured tones, and always through his megaphone. “Sir, you don’t know what you’re talking about, it’s God’s truth.” The street was now filled with people, a hot, angry carnival. An alt right group in black shirts came by, two of their number bloodied, one with a bandage around his head, another, farther back, trim and brushed as a storm trooper, tended a Nazi flag. A short woman with dark hair, also wearing a megaphone, but pitched several decibels higher than the preacher’s, rushed down the street, in a fury of denunciation, cursing this and cursing, cursing the whole f–ing country, and swinging this way and that as she came, a bright placard fixed to her back, half in English, half in Spanish. A thin young man in a black helmet came by, clutching his wrist, a pained look on his face. He clutched the hand of his girlfriend, also helmeted, and together they returned to their place with other marchers. What, pray tell, are you doing there, children? Then, seemingly out of nowhere, a phalanx of state police, in full riot gear, and tall shields, appeared at the far end of the street, and came walking slowly toward us, clearing everyone away in front of them. A few people rushed up and took pictures, a fellow in a derby hat and prosthetic leg, walked on ahead, like a bandleader, one of the Citizens Constitutional League “soldiers,” perhaps, close behind him. A bystander yelled at the derby hatted man, “get out of the street! You’re unlawfully blocking the street!”

By now our little group–Stefan, Nick, Avery, Doug, and myself–were hot, tired, and hungry, so we retreated to the mall, seeking lunch. Everything was closed down. A group waving bright red flags and chanting, marched back up toward the Park.  A contingent of riot police came down an alley. We found shade, if not lunch, and talked, a little. Doug went on to find Erin. Avery went off somewhere. Stefan, Nick, and I walked another block over to Water Street, and crossed into a parking lot. A group of alt right people were loading their helmets and other gear into the back of an SUV. A guy leaning on a cane was arguing with them, they argued back, then closed the hatch, and climbed into their gleaming Cadillac Escalade and drove off. We got to Stefan’s car, and drove a few blocks to Belmont, and there–oh, delight!–found a place to eat. A hand-lettered sign in many colors taped to the window welcomed “friends.” Cool inside! Patrons at small burl tables, amiably chatting. Sunday brunch, Eggs Benedict. All quiet outside, nought but neighborhood, and yet only blocks away from explosive confrontation. How could this be?

How could this be, indeed. For even as we were seated there, pleasantly conversing and enjoying breakfast, medics and police were tending to the carnage of that awful moment when a car plowed into protesters on Water Street.

And I have just now read, the recent, excellent coverage by the New York Times of this incident, and deeply mourn the death of Heather Heyer. If there is any value in what I have written here, may it serve as a memorial to her, with the hope that this tragedy can lead us to put down our weapons, our anger and our hatreds, and ask forgiveness for ourselves and each other, and seek understanding together.